international analysis and commentary

The end of Essebsi’s presidency in Tunisia: taking stock of a difficult transition


On July 25, the day Tunisia celebrated the 62nd anniversary of the Republic, the country’s first freely democratically elected president, Beji Caid Essebsi, passed away at the age of 92. In view of presidential and parliamentary elections (on September 15 and October 6 respectively), Tunisia takes stock of its new style of governance and, more importantly, of the prospects ahead.

With the democratic model still failing to address the redistributive claims raised by the 2011 uprisings, the people’s discontent with (formal) politics significantly increased. This puts Tunisian nascent democracy at risk and allows a nostalgic rhetoric to gain ground, in parallel with anti-establishment forces, narrow-minded nationalism and populist stances.

Undoubtedly a charismatic figure and the prototype of “strongman” politics, President Essebsi was a key actor of the transition since 2011: the soul of Tunisian modernism and the guarantor of stability according to some, a symbol of counter-revolution and democratic backsliding for others.

Essebsi epitomized a political culture premised on personal power and state centrality, as well as a model of governance that prioritizes stability and security. Like Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Muslim democratic Ennahda party, he embodied the main features of post-revolutionary Tunisian politics. Experienced politicians with great personal charisma, champions of compromise and Realpolitik, they also showcase a ruling class that struggles to renovate itself by promoting new figures able to capitalize on strong popular support.

Rached Ghannouchi and Beji Caid Essebsi


In the aftermath of the 2011 pro-democracy uprisings, the clear will of the founding fathers of the Second Republic to prevent the authoritarian return of Ben Ali’s style of governance – intimately associated with centralisation and personalism in the collective perception – has been constitutionalised with “interwoven powers” invested in the heads of the executive branch, the prime minister on the one hand and the president of the Republic on the other.

In recent years, some challenged the effectiveness that the mixed regime adopted and Essebsi often pushed for constitutional amendments towards a “presidentialization” of the system. The conjunction of the slow pace of reforms enacted by newly democratic institutions with his strong presidency – significantly legitimized by direct popular vote – has frequently pointed to the “dysfunctions” of the new-born democratic regime for the stalemate it often causes. In other words, the core of the crisis would lie in the way the political system is currently designed as it splinters, and thus weakens, the executive power. Such a condition echoed from time to time in a growing nostalgia for a strongman in contrast to the alleged inefficiency of corporate but polarised bodies, like parliament and government, in facing the country’s economic and security challenges.

Whereas Essebsi endorsed this narrative as an incumbent, anti-establishment forces also jumped on the bandwagon. Among others, the conservative and ultra-nationalist right-wing Free Destourian Party emerged in Tunisia’s opinion polls with between 10-15% of voting intentions. Its outspoken leader and presidential candidate, the 43-year-old lawyer Abir Moussi, is the former Deputy Secretary General of the now-banned Democratic Constitutional Rally, Ben Ali’s ruling party. She openly claims his heritage (I’m a Ben Aliste, she says) and challenges the revolutionary gains.

All in all, the internal attacks on the regime hint at a growing malaise in Tunisian society over the people who are part of the current political machinery. The rise of independents (as the 2018 municipal elections have already illustrated) and anti-establishment candidates is nurtured by the failure of democracy to deliver economically.

Since 2011, Tunisia experienced a successful political transition by holding four consecutive free and fair elections with changes of government and power shifts, by adopting a progressive constitution, and passing significant laws countering violence against women (July 2017) and racial discrimination (October 2018).

Yet, while the polarizing topic of inheritance equality for women that Essebsi proposed in August 2018 sparks debate, the harsh living conditions of many women in the country remain unchanged. The April 2019 deadly road accident involving female farmhands packed onto a truck that occurred in the poor governorate of Sidi Bouzid, cradle of the revolution, was a sad reminder of the country’s imbalances and enduring poverty. Such conditions expose many Tunisians, and mostly women, to daily exploitation and danger for a miserable pay of a couple of euros.

The way many female workers commute to work in Sidi Bouzid


Whereas Tunisia has substantially advanced in the fields of political rights and civil liberties during its transition thus far, the new-born democracy failed to deliver economically and faces a growing disillusionment among the people. By nearly all metrics, the economic situation is even worse than it was prior to the uprisings. The unemployment rate is currently around 15%, higher than the average during the late 2000s, and mostly affects young people. The rate of inflation has doubled since 2011 and jumped to 7% in June 2019.

Even more worrisome, the long-standing issue of a geographical divide in terms of inequality  that came to the spotlight with the 2011 popular protests keeps a “two-speed country” alive, as it regards, first, a rural-urban divide within each region, and secondly, a regional imbalance between the privileged coastal areas and the more marginalized internal regions. Hence, by falling short of citizens’ expectations to solve their day-to-day problems, and to reduce if not sort out persistent social disparities, democracy was impeached.

Moreover, some troubling trends have been also emerging. Political analyst Sharan Grewal remarkably points to the politicized use of military courts against civilians to go after political opponents and to the enhancement of police powers as facilitating factors for a strongman takeover in a still fragile democracy. In 2018, nationally-representative survey data from Afrobarometer alarmingly captured a decreasing rejection for one-party rule (only 51%, down from 68% in 2015) or one-man rule in the country (from 79 to 61%t).

In addition, human rights watchdogs denounced the re-emergence of torture and the state of emergency continuously in place since 2015 that provides the Interior Ministry with exceptional powers and allows the monitoring of the press or the prohibition of meetings. Not least, governing elites have pursued a series of problematic laws like the 2015 counterterrorism law or the 2017 law for “administrative reconciliation” spearheaded by Essebsi.

Disillusionment with the political process and institutions have substituted the initial euphoria of the uprisings for a long time. In this sense, it is indicative of the rise of contentious politics in correlation with low voter turnouts (slightly more than 35% at the last municipal elections one year ago) and decreasing levels of trust in political institutions. For instance, survey results from Arab Barometer 2016 reveal that only one-in-five Tunisians trust parliament and 35%trust the government to a great or medium extent, whereas confidence in political parties is the lowest at 12%.

Against this backdrop, the political offer appears as extremely atomized among a myriad of personal parties cast very much in their leaders’ image and lacking deep and stable roots in society. Once again, Tunisia will go to the polls in a context of substantial ideological flattening with a few exceptions, though unable to get out of their extremely elitist dimension by intercepting larger segments of the electorate. In parallel, populism and new nationalism are on the r.

The next elections will be a litmus test for Ennahda, which is now the first-largest party in parliament. Breaking with past practice, it has named its first-ever presidential candidate, Abdelfattah Mourou – a longstanding high ranking member – after years of “neutrality” concerning the presidency. Moreover, its influential leader Ghannouchi is running for a seat in Parliament.

Looking at the broader picture, in the coming months established parties representing a version of politics-as-is will run against empowered anti-establishment forces, a reactionary nostalgia for strongmen as well as competent technocrats to win people’s (poor) confidence and open a new chapter in Tunisia’s modern political life.